Advanced Search

Learn About The Holocaust

Special Collections

My Saved Research




Skip to main content

The paradox of Holocaust humor : comedy that illuminates tragedy / by Alice M. Solomon.

Publication | Library Call Number: PN56.H55 S65 2011

The use of humor in Holocaust art has provoked fervent debate. On one side are those who denounce it in the belief that it misrepresents the event and disrespects its victims. On the other side are those who believe that humor, especially in its darkest form, is uniquely suited to the representation of an event so inherently absurd and terrifying. This dissertation supports the latter position. It begins with an overview of humor theory, citing, among others, Hobbes, Kant, Freud, Bakhtin, and Des Pres. Humor is shown to be both a defense against persecution and a force for resistance and rebellion. The problematic aspects of memory, witnessing, and giving testimony are considered within the context of attempting to reconstruct history. The dissertation goes on to discuss the special nature of Jewish humor, which often focuses on the gap between the ideal of the Jews as a chosen people and the reality of Jewish historical experience. Following this are discussions of specific works—the first among them Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night. Central to this novel is the kind of moral ambiguity so often present in Holocaust narrative. The protagonist, a self-proclaimed apolitical man, accepts a job spying for the Allies; yet the job involves broadcasting inflammatory anti-Semitic propaganda. In Mother Night Vonnegut addresses the importance of behaving responsibly. The central figure in Leslie Epstein's King of the Jews, based on the head of the Lodz Ghetto Jewish Council, is enveloped in moral ambiguity, as well. Is he an egomaniacal tyrant interested only in self-glorification and in wielding power, or is he himself only a victim, trying to do his best under impossible circumstances? Next to be considered are the works of three Second-Generation authors: Art Spiegelman, Michael Chabon, and Thane Rosenbaum. It is shown that all three use humor, as well as magic, to respond to their Holocaust legacies. The transmission of memory and the phenomenon of secondhand witnessing are examined in this chapter. Finally, the dissertation addresses five film comedies that touch upon the Holocaust in varying degrees: The Great Dictator, To Be or Not to Be, The Producers, Seven Beauties, and Life Is Beautiful . It is shown that each one, through the use of very different types of humor, moved us forward in our ability to confront and contemplate a subject that remains largely incomprehensible.

Solomon, Alice M.
Record last modified: 2018-05-18 16:20:00
This page: